It would be easy--too easy--to point to the wildfires which have devastated huge areas of northern Alberta near Fort McMurray, the hub of tar sands mining in Canada, and say that Albertans are reaping what they have sown. Yes, it's true that climate change is coming to one of the very areas which is contributing disproportionately to climate change and with catastrophic results.
The source of the current catastrophe is that the boreal forest which surrounds the tar sands has been turned into a tinderbox because of increasingly warm, dry weather that used to be uncharacteristic of this area of Alberta. But, what is happening in Alberta was predicted decades ago to be one of the consequences of unchecked global warming.
Having said all that, we should remember that the warming we are experiencing today is actually the result of greenhouse gases dumped into the atmosphere as of 40 years ago or so. (The analysis cited gives a range of 25 to 50 years, a lag related to what is called the thermal inertia of the oceans.) If this is the case, what Albertans are experiencing today has almost nothing to do with the climate effects of tar sands exploitation since there was very little production from Alberta's tar sands that long ago.
What this means, of course, is that there will be much worse to come even if today we were to reduce to zero all greenhouse gas emissions and other factors which are raising worldwide temperature.
The problems we are already seeing such as increased flooding in some places; increased drought in others; sea-level rise that is already swallowing islands; the rapid change in climate zones (which affects what we can grow in those zones); and myriad effects on plants and animals around the globe as their habitat shifts or disappears--all of these are just the beginning. And, there is no reason to believe that global greenhouse emissions and other causes of climate change such as deforestation will reverse their trends anytime soon.
When thinking about the Alberta wildfires, there is something else we must remember. Tar sands oil combined with oil from America's fracking boom have been the only reason that oil supplies worldwide have been able to grow. The very sources of oil that have been vilified as a new assault on climate have until recently found ample demand for their product. With production from both these sources now contracting due to low prices, we may in the not-to-distant future face oil price spikes.
As a global society, we still want all the conveniences which oil provides without the bad side effects. As such we must now consider ourselves Albertans no matter where we live and understand our complicity in their plight--and, why their plight is becoming our own.
However carbon-intensive extracting oil from the tar sands may be, shutting down one source of oil is hardly a solution to the climate problem. Our challenge is to shut down our own demand for oil and other fossil fuels. That strategy would make high-cost oil sources such as the Canadian tar sands and America's deep shale deposits its first victims and accomplish through demand reduction what all the public protests to date have failed to achieve.
Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.